Media and Rule of Law – Opinion
Freedom of speech and of the press are hallmarks of a free society. The media educate and inform people. It helps them form opinions on vital issues. Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press under Article 19. However, the flow of information channeled through the press and electronic media sometimes brings on the ugliest side of a society. The barbaric and brutal murder of a young girl in the heart of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, has been widely condemned. Crimes of a heinous nature are reported. The increase in crime is a harbinger of a complete collapse of the administrative and judicial systems in Pakistan. Criminals do not care about the harsh penalties provided for in the penal code (s). They know the system is vulnerable. Incompetence, corruption, lawlessness and shocking callousness aside, but what is more disturbing is the humility our society has fallen into. Inhuman and barbaric acts no longer bite our conscience. Human history informs us that crime, corruption, apathy and the callous and unrepentant attitude of those in charge of the affairs of state lead to an apocalyptic day. Criminal gangs will soon rule the streets across the country if the media stops reporting these crimes.
After a crime is reported by the media, the police kick in and go to the other extreme. The Minar-e-Pakistan incident is involved. Bringing people together indiscriminately ends up weakening investigations. Courts convict on the basis of evidence. Despite hundreds of billions of rupees distributed to provincial governments, people’s freedom and security are in great jeopardy as the elite take full advantage of security and protocol at the expense of ordinary people.
The Noor Muqaddam case attracted media attention. There are new reports / comments on this case in the press and on social media almost daily. Careful examination and analysis of social media content and press reports on this and other case would show that most press reports and discussions on TV channels are about to affect investigations and reports. free and fair trials in these cases. The verdict of guilt or innocence is up to a court, but it appears that presenters, journalists and some criminal law experts (only on television) are taking over from the courts. If these cases are left to the police, it is highly likely that these matters will eventually be forgotten.
This brings up an important and hitherto less thoughtful aspect of the whole matter. What are the limits of freedom of expression and freedom of the press and media with regard to the commission of a crime and reporting on a pending criminal case? Another concomitant question is: Doesn’t this affect a free and fair trial that could ultimately undermine the rule of law in society and compromise the freedoms of others?
The steps between the recording of the first information report (FIR), the appearance of the accused in court for referral for investigation and then the delivery of a final report (challan) by the investigator, who is usually of a lower rank, usually after a long time in the court of first instance are crucial to the outcome of a case. This is where the fate of a case is sealed. A fair investigation is part of a fair trial. This report prepared by a police officer is the anchor sheet of a criminal case and usually at this point the system is manipulated in a number of ways.
Media reports affect the investigation. He can control the investigator, but since a number of people in the media are unfamiliar with the law and since interim reports (zimni) are difficult to access the press, manipulative tactics go unnoticed. The code of procedure, the bible of criminal law, entered into force more than a century ago (1898). He had the underlying presumption that the police were incorruptible. The fairness and independence of the investigation were jealously guarded by the courts. A study of legal reports from colonial times and even many years after independence would show that the courts would hardly comment negatively on a poor investigation. The famous saying of the Privy Council in the Khawaja Nazir Ahmed case (1945) has been followed for many decades. But then things started to deteriorate. Like other departments, the police department was also interfered with. The High Courts would then intervene because the police were not prepared to fulfill their statutory obligations. Thus, the barriers erected to protect a fair administration of justice have been eroded. Today, some of the TV presenters and legal experts judge a felony before a case even reaches the roaster in court. Every criminal, no matter how odious his crime may be, has the right to due process and a fair trial. The law always presumes his innocence until his guilt is proven by legal evidence. These are the constitutional guarantees for all of us against mob justice.
Media coverage of pending legal issues began more frequently with the rise of judicial activism in Pakistan. In 2007, with the impeachment of a chief judge and the house arrest of other superior court judges, the newly empowered electronic media took center stage. It is certain that if the media had not come out openly in favor of the judges and lawyers, the general would have gotten away with it. Subsequently, the legal proceedings of the cases took place almost live on television networks. Public courts were held in their evening shows. The discussions in those broadcasts were reflected in the court proceedings the following day. There was then no point of return. The proceedings in the Panama case (2017) followed a similar pattern.
The floors of the Temple of Justice are slippery. Unless the judges’ hands cling tightly to the pillars of the law and their feet rest on more secure grounds of justice and fairness and the glamorous beams of advertising lights are not stopped with the opaque materials of reason and virtue, as symbolically represented in Blind Lady of Justice, the courts will continue to render popular decisions. To ensure the core values of a fair trial and the rule of law and to create a balance between the competing rights of a fair trial and freedom of the press and freedom of expression, courts in common law countries have established some guiding principles. American and European affairs can be helpful, but here the jury trial is a constitutional right. Our Supreme Court attempted to develop a test for local conditions. Convictions have been overturned in a number of cases in America based on pre-trial publicity and in particular on the effects of confessions (Riedu, Estes and Shepard cases cited in Skilling v. United States 2010). The Supreme Court of Pakistan in a suo motu case (PLD 2019 SC 1) has set out some guiding principles. In an earlier judgment, the PBA c. Pemra (PLD 2016 SC 678) regarding reports on cases pending before the Court have been established. However, these principles are flouted with complete impunity. It is high time that these principles were applied by the courts.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021